Raging Phoenix is the story of a young female rocker (played by Jeeja Yanin) who gets caught up in a ruthless kidnapping ring. Women are abducted off the streets of Thailand, drugged, and taken to a secret laboratory hidden within a Temple of Doom, which is in turn hidden within a metropolitan sewage system. Naturally, the women’s tears are harvested there, to concoct a patent medicine for eccentric billionaires.
Only one force is strong enough to thwart the kidnapper’s plans: a small group of drunken vigilantes who learned to combine Muay Thai boxing with stylish hip-hop dance moves.
Enough about the storyline, let’s talk about the action. The fight scenes in Raging Phoenix are elaborate and unique. Most are not really “fight” scenes at all, so much as opportunities to showcase a carefully planned set of breakdance-kicks against a stationary opponent. This, and not the ridiculous plot, is the movie’s unforgivable flaw: it becomes a mere sequence of tricks set to bad Thai rap music, and we’ve seen better tricks elsewhere.
My Rating: B-
Jeeja Yanin Vismistananda and friends, in Raging Phoenix
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Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a washed-up, bankrupt and luckless action star, who would do almost anything to avoid making another straight-to-DVD B-movie. Is he desperate enough to commit armed robbery?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not an act!” But actually, JCVD shows the long-overlooked dramatic talents of a skilled thespian. No kidding.
My Rating: A-
The Real Shaolin
In this revealing documentary, Alexander Sebastien Lee follows four trainees at the modern Shaolin Temple. Orion and Eric are two foreigners who hope to become warrior monks; Zhu and Yuan Peng are the children of poor farmers and laborers, who hope to escape poverty through martial arts stardom. Misled by popular films–and indeed by previous hagiographic “Shaolin documentaries”–none finds quite what they expected.
Traditional Shaolin Kung Fu training is perhaps rarer today than ever before, having been supplanted by theatrical Wushu and sporting Sanda. Trainers resent the lazy and clumsy tourists, few of whom can endure the austere training. Visiting laowai in turn resent the teachers, who expect them to follow the Chinese kids’ gymnastics curriculum for years, until they are deemed ready and worthy for the inner-gate secrets of the Temple.
Although Monk De Yang explains that the purpose of Chinese Kung Fu is to improve health, most of the thousands of students in and around Shaolin train in the dirt, sleep in the cold, and take little rest after their frequent injuries. In the end, the trainees are disillusioned, having experienced more bitterness then glory.
My Rating: B+—and required viewing for all would-be martial arts pilgrims
Champions (Duo Biao)
This heartwarming story of the first Olympic Wushu demonstrations will surely arouse your patriotic spirit–if you are Chinese. If not, you can still enjoy Dicky Cheung’s humor, and the semi-authentic presentations of traditional Chinese styles: Taiji Fists, Eagle Claw Kung Fu and Mantis Boxing.
My Rating: B
Donnie Yen stars in this creative retelling of a real Wing Chun Kung Fu master’s life in WWII China. Nominated for best action direction, and winner of Hong Kong’s Best Film award, its critical and commercial success has already guaranteed at least one sequel.
My Rating: A-
And many more…
There were so many kung fu movies released to theaters and DVD this year, I couldn’t possibly review them all. Here is my mostly complete list:
Against The Dark (Steven Seagal)
Blood and Bone (Michael Jai White)
Chocolate (Jeeja Yanin, US version)
Chandni Chowk to China
Confessions of an Action Star
Dance of the Dragon
Dragonball Evolution (Chow Yun-Fat)
Driven to Kill (Steven Seagal)
Geisha vs. Ninjas
I Was a Teenage Ninja
Kungfu Cyborg (Wu Jing) (C-)
Legendary Assassin (Wu Jing) (B-)
Love and Honor (B-)
Onechanbara: Samurai Bikini Squad
Ong Bak 2 (Tony Jaa)
Mask of the Ninja
Never Back Down
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li
Wandering Ginza Butterfly
Wushu: The Young Generation
Red Cliff (Tony Leung, US version) (B+)
The Samurai Princess
The White Crane Chronicles, a.k.a. Kung Fu Killer (David Carradine)
Which of these movies was your favorite? Least favorite? Which releases are you eagerly awaiting for 2010? Personally, I think the best martial arts movie of next year might well turn out to be a dance movie…
The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers